Lizzie Winwood and Edward Heron are in love. A simple statement, and one that, on the face of it, should make for happiness all around. But when you consider that Edward is merely a second son who has not yet received his Captaincy, and Lizzie is being suggested as a future wife for the Earl of Rule, simplicity flies out the window!! This sad situation leads the youngest Winwood daughter, Horatia, to make the supreme sacrifice. She visits the Earl and nobly offers herself in Lizzie's place.
This little scene, the first meeting between the Earl and Horatia, features some of the most delightful of Georgette Heyer's dialogue. Marcus, Earl of Rule, thirty-five years old, has decided to do his duty and wed - the Winwoods are a family of ancient and reputable lineage, and Lizzie is the beauty of the family, as well as the eldest daughter. He has made the ideal choice for a wife. Horatia, on the other hand, is only seventeen. She is the youngest Winwood, outspoken, and lacking in the elegance of face and body that characterizes the Winwoods. She is short, has a stammer, which tends to worsen when she's nervous, and her one claim to the Winwood lineage is the Winwood nose! Surprisingly (or not as the case may be), she charms Rule into accepting her proposal. He will alter his request to mean Miss Horatia Winwood, not Miss Elizabeth Winwood.
This marriage is convenient in many ways. The Winwoods have a Fatal Tendency - they gamble. Not all of them, but Pelham Winwood, brother and scion of the family, and also Horry, who learned from Pelham. These tendencies have reduced the family's coffers to the point of emptiness, so a hefty marriage settlement from Rule is very welcome. For Rule, a young wife will almost guarantee the continuation of his line, and an influx of Winwood genes will be of benefit to the future Earls of Rule. Thus the story really gets underway - with a mature and sophisticated man wed to a young and headstrong Miss!
This story is set at the end of the eighteenth century, rather than a few years later in the Regency - nevertheless, other than the mention of wigs, panniers and much lacing, the morals and social mores are much the same. Rule has had a mistress who is not happy at his marriage; he also has a sworn enemy who would like nothing better than to bring Rule down and is not above planning to use his young bride to accomplish it! There are discontented heirs, adventures in dark walks, and a villainous scheme to foil, and through it all there is the developing relationship between Marcus and his Horry.
The gentle wooing that Marcus embarks upon is delightful, considering this is a man experienced and demanding in the ways of love. Horry's fascination with him is evident from the beginning - she plunges into their marriage without hesitation, sinking deeper under his spell as he continually charms her with his behavior. There have been comments that Horry is really too young a heroine for Marcus - too childlike to ever really capture his heart, but I disagree. Under her willful youthfulness and impetuous schemes, there is a very strong sense of honor and duty - virtues that appeal to the Earl, much more so than would simple beauty or sensuality. Horry's many troubles tend to stem from her misplaced sense of loyalty, and as such, are difficult for Rule to condemn. His real concern is that he may be too old for her, and his major fear is that he may lose her! We readers, however, can see that Horry needs someone like Marcus as much as Marcus needs her - these two oddly matched people are really ideal for each other.
Once again, Georgette Heyer treats us to a glimpse into a time when gentlemen slipped on their favorite wig and frothed their Valenciennes lace cuffs before going out for the evening; and ladies carefully affixed the patch of their choice to their delicately powdered cheeks. Gambling was an accepted form of entertainment, arranged marriages were everyday occurrences, and social standing was everything!!! To read this book is to lose oneself in bygone days - to share with Horry her growing feelings for her new husband, and her horror at some of her dreadful social gaffes. It is a lovely romance in the best sense of the word - the dawning love between two unlikely characters played against a backdrop rich in detail and vibrancy. Please make sure you have a Georgette Heyer book or two among your romance collection - borrow from a friend or the library if you must, but don't miss the chance to be wooed and won by Miss Heyer's magnificent style.
(This review refers to the 1967 4th Edition Printing, Pan Books, London)